Science does not have a monopoly on human knowledge.
Question: When I talk about God, the soul, and rebirth, people often ask, “Why discuss such unscientific things in this modern age of science?”
Answer: Their question betrays their basic misconception that science has a monopoly on human knowledge and that only things that are “scientific” are true. This misconception is not a result of science, but of scientism, the school of thought that places around science a halo of “omniscience.” However, scientism itself is unscientific. There is no scientific experiment to prove that scientific knowledge is the only true knowledge. The question, based on an unscientific assumption, is not scientific. If people feel that people should not discuss unscientific things, then they themselves should stop raising this question.
Nonetheless, now that the question has been raised, let’s explore its answer further. Pointing out the proper place of science in humanity’s quest for knowledge is sometimes misunderstood as an insult to science and to the human intellect itself. But far from being an insult, it is a tribute to the human intellect. The same extraordinary human intellect that has led humans to the heights of scientific knowledge has also led to us to remarkable insights in many other fields. As Albert Einstein stated, “All religions, arts and sciences are branches of the same tree.” By acknowledging this all-round accomplishment of the human intellect and not letting scientism monopolize human knowledge, we open the door to a holistic understanding of ourselves and the world we live in.
Question: But isn’t science the most reliable way of acquiring knowledge?
Answer: That depends on the field one is considering. Nobel laureate physicist Erwin Schrodinger eloquently stated the abilities and the inabilities of science: “I am very astonished that the scientific picture of the real world around me is very deficient. It gives a lot of factual information, puts all our experience in a magnificently consistent order, but it is ghastly silent about all and sundry that is really near to our heart, that really matters to us. It cannot tell us a word about red and blue, bitter and sweet, physical pain and physical delight; it knows nothing of beautiful and ugly, good or bad, God and eternity. Science sometimes pretends to answer questions in these domains, but the answers are very often so silly that we are not inclined to take them seriously.” To better appreciate Schrodinger’s remark, let’s consider an example. Suppose a neurosurgeon returns home to find his wife upset with him. If science were his only means of acquiring knowledge, he would have to do a brain scan of his wife to find why she is annoyed. Would that help? Obviously not; it would compound his wife’s annoyance into rage.
Here’s another example. Consider seeing a beautiful sunset. We can directly experience the beauty of the sunset. But can any scientific experiment measure that beauty? Science could perhaps measure some para-meters like the intensity of the sunlight, but such measurements would do little to convey or explain the actual experience of the beauty.
To summarize, science does have utility and authority in certain fields, but extrapolating that authority to judge all fields of knowledge is unwarranted, unproductive, and sometimes even counterproductive. We can save ourselves from the misleading spell of scientism, while simultaneously maintaining due respect for science, by bringing to mind the sage advice of Copernicus about what constitutes knowledge: “To know that we know what we know, and to know that we do not know what we do not know, that is true knowledge.”
Question: Isn’t science more reliable than other branches of knowledge because it deals with factual things?
Answer: By factual, if you mean things that are seen by our eyes or otherwise perceived by our senses, then science certainly doesn’t deal only with perceivable things. In fact, most of the objects studied in modern physics (which is considered the most scientific of all sciences) are not perceivable at all: electrons, mesons, neutrinos, and hadrons, to name a few. Moreover, in some cases, this non-perceivability is not just a practical limitation imposed by insufficiently sophisticated instruments. Quarks, for example, are considered non-perceivable even in principle; they are so tightly bound inside the protons and neutron that nothing can make them break out on their own. Science treats all these particles as factual, and their existence and behavior is given as a scientific explanation for many direct physical observations.
Additionally, with the increasing use of abstract mathematics in physics, the gap between the concepts studied by science and the factual objects of the world has widened. This trend, which was noted by Nikola Tesla nearly a century ago, has only grown since he made his insightful observation: “Today’s scientists have substituted mathematics for experiments, and they wander off through equation after equation, and eventually build a structure which has no relation to reality.”
Question: Isn’t scientific knowledge more reliable because it is objective? After all, the observations of one scientist can be verified by others.
Answer: Not all scientific observations are easily verifiable. For example, when physicists claim to have observed a fundamental particle using a high-energy particle accelerator, their observation can be verified only by those who have access to the equipment and can understand the complex technical jargon used to explain the claim.
Further, in quantum physics, objectivity is impossible because the very act of observation is said to change the observed object.
Moreover, observations are not as objective as they seem to be, as pointed out by the English astronomer Arthur Eddington: “A scientist commonly professes to base his beliefs on observations, not theories. Theories, it is said, are useful in suggesting new ideas and new lines of investigation for the experimenter; but hard facts are the only proper ground for conclusion. I have never come across anyone who carries this profession into practice certainly not the hard-headed experimentalist, who is more swayed by his theories because he is less accustomed to scrutinize them… It is better to admit frankly that theory has, and is entitled to have, an important share in determining belief.”
The pioneering quantum physicist Max Planck was even more forthright in stating the role of subjectivity: “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see light, but rather because its opponents die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”
The subjectivity inherent within the scientific enterprise is eye-openingly documented by historian of science Thomas Kuhn in his landmark book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. He shows that scientists, like the rest of us, are fallible human beings, who are often motivated by their personal interests and preconceptions, constricted by the beliefs and biases of their superiors, subject to peer pressure and concerned about the availability and continuance of research grants.
Question: Isn’t scientific knowledge preferable because it is free from dependence on faith?
Answer: Science demands faith both in its general method as well as in its specific theories.
Consider the statement of physicist Gerard ‘t Hooft, “We [physicists] are trying to uncover more of that [the universality of our scientific theories]. It is our belief that there is more.” Obviously, “our belief” means “our faith.” Scientific research is based on the implicit faith that nature behaves according to laws that can be uncovered by human intelligence. This implicit faith is just an assumption without any actual proof or without even any theoretical possibility of proof. In fact, the behavior of many of the fundamental particles in atomic physics defies description by any scientific laws. Nonetheless, physicists toil on hoping to find out some such laws in the future. To hope for the existence of unseen and unproven things isn’t that what faith is all about?
Most scientific knowledge is acquired using the inductive method, in which patterns discerned from finite observations are extrapolated into universal laws. The 18th-century Scottish philosopher David Hume argued that the use of induction can never be rationally justified, and his arguments have never been persuasively refuted. Inductive reasoning is thus a fundamental, indispensable article of faith in science.
When scientists propose a specific hypothesis to explain a set of observations, they have faith that their hypothesis is correct and that it will be verified by future observations. Often, even when subsequent observations don’t support the hypothesis, they continue to believe it, hoping that future observations will. For example, evolutionists believe that all species have evolved from a common ancestor, but the fossil record doesn’t show any evidence of transitional links (intermediate species that are supposed to have existed in the past and that formed the evolutionary link between two existing species). Some evolutionists claim that evolution occurs too slowly to be seen by the human eye and too fast to be seen in the fossil record. Even the most dull-witted person can understand what this claim boils down to: faith,despite the absence of supporting evidence.
Far greater than the faith that scientists require in their research is the faith that common people have in the findings of scientists. The extent of unquestioning faith that scientific findings command is seen in the following observation of Einstein: “Tell a man that there are 300 billion stars in the universe, and he’ll believe you. Tell him that a bench has wet paint upon it and he’ll have to touch it to be sure.”
Question: Isn’t science special because it follows the scientific method?
Answer: Let’s consider the steps that comprise the scientific method.
1. Observe some aspect of the universe.
2. Form a hypothesis that potentially explains the observation.
3. Devise testable predictions from that hypothesis.
4. Conduct experiments that can test those predictions.
5. Modify the hypothesis until it is in accord with all observations and predictions.
6. Arrive at a conclusion of whether the hypothesis is true or not.
Now consider the reasoning of a cricket fan:
1. Observation: A cricketer X hits sixers frequently.
2. Hypothesis: His ability to hit frequent sixers is due to his strong arms and his swift, smooth arm swing.
3. Experiment: When cricketers with strong arms and swift, smooth arm swings are tested, they are seen to hit sixers frequently. When cricketers without these bodily attributes are examined, they do not hit sixers so frequently.
4. Conclusion: Hypothesis confirmed.
The above reasoning parallels the scientific method. This parallel shows that the much-touted scientific method is not unique to science; it can be used and is often used in many other fields. In fact, the scientific method is nothing more than a systematized version of common sense, as is confirmed by Albert Einstein, “The whole of science is nothing more than a refinement of everyday thinking.” Just as common sense can give us right answers, so can science. And just as common sense can give us wrong answers, so can science. That’s why there’s no reason to consider scientific knowledge special and privileged because it is acquired using some reverence-worthy “scientific method.” There’s no such method.
Caitanya Carana Dasa has a degree in E&TC engineering and serves full-time at ISKCON Pune. To read his other articles visit thespiritualscientist.com
This article is an extract from the author's upcoming book The Science of Spirituality. To get a copy, contact: